Dive to ‘the Center of the Center’ of Marine Biodiversity

With 4,000 fish representing 165 fish species, the Exhibit replicates a thriving reef in the waters of the Philippines. (Photo by Astrid M. Barros)

Under the light of a full moon in May of 2011, three scuba divers slid into an underwater paradise teeming with life. The nocturnal denizens of a lush coral reef were coming out of their hiding places to feed. Urchins foraged in grass beds while shrimp hunted for small prey. But something else was happening that night.

The water began to thicken into a cloudy soup. The divers looked around and realized they were witnessing a rare occurrence. In synchrony, the corals were releasing millions of eggs and sperm in a mass-spawning event. None of the divers had seen coral spawn in the wild before, and to see this once-a-year event on the first night dive of their trip was a bucket-list moment.

This was at the Verde Island Passage, a 10-mile wide strait between Batangas in southern Luzon and the island of Mindoro, a cauldron of marine life so rich it is known as the center of marine biodiversity. The divers were scientists, members of the California Academy of Sciences’ largest expedition in its 155-year history, who had come from more than 7,000 miles away.

An unusual 6-armed starfish, Fromia monilis, on a brain coral in Verde Island Passage (Photo by Bart Shepherd, California Academy of Sciences)

Academy and Filipino scientists have been studying this rainforest of the sea for so many years, it is said that no other marine habitat on the planet has more documented species than the Passage. And like the proverbial horn of plenty, this eco-region continues to yield an abundance of creatures strange, singular and yet to be discovered. 

Every year, Academy scientists emerge from their San Francisco enclave and fan out across the globe, studying the diverse biota of the different regions of the Earth, from the steep Yunnan mountains in China to the forests of Madagascar. 

The coral reefs seemed to have endured, for now. If political will and scientific expertise join forces, the reefs’ chances of survival are strong.

In 2011, a generous donation from Margaret and Will Hearst funded the Academy’s most comprehensive expedition, encompassing terrestrial and marine surveys in the Philippines. The deep and shallow water teams concentrated on Verde Island Passage, home to a bounty of marine species.

“All of the Philippines is part of the Coral Triangle, the richest shallow water environments in the world, so all of the Philippines, most of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are the areas that really have this exceptional diversity,” said Dr. Terrence Gosliner, the expedition leader and Dean of Science and Research Collections at the Academy. “And Verde Island Passage is not just the center, it is the center of the center of marine diversity.”

Dr. Terrence Gosliner, the expedition leader and Dean of Science and Research Collections at the Academy, says that every time he dives in Verde Island Passage, he sees something he has never seen before. Dr. Gosliner is holding an isopod (Photo courtesy of California Academy of Sciences)

The 2011 expedition discovered more than 300 new species, from inflatable sharks to driftwood-eating starfish.

This year, from April to June, the Academy is sending another expedition, funded by the National Science Foundation. It aims to understand better the distribution of the rich biodiversity in Verde Island Passage by going wider and deeper. Scientists will explore farther west to Lubang Island, which faces the South China Sea. And with the use of cutting-edge dive technology, researchers will plunge the depths past the limits afforded by conventional scuba equipment. 

“We’re excited about using the closed circuit rebreather for the first time,” said Bart Shepherd, director of the Steinhart Aquarium at the Academy. He is one of three Academy scientists who trained to use the modern dive apparatus originally developed for Navy SEALs. 

Night creature: A coconut octopus, Amphioctopus marginatus, hiding in small clam shells, Anilao Pier, Batangas (Photo by Bart Shepherd, California Academy of Sciences)

“We can enter the ‘twilight zone,’ about 200-500 feet down, so-called because it is too deep for regular scuba diving but too shallow for submersibles. We know more about the moon than the twilight zone, that’s uncharted territory!” 

Shepherd says that of all the exhibits in the Aquarium, he is most emotionally invested in the Philippine Coral Reef “because I spent 10 years thinking about it.” The 212,000-gallon tank is the deepest live coral exhibit in the world. The coral and fish species are what one would find in a thriving reef in Philippine waters. 

Bart Shepherd, Director of the Steinhart Aquarium at the Academy, spent 10 years conceptualizing the Philippine Coral Exhibit. (Photo courtesy of California Academy of Sciences)

Saving the Reefs

For the 2014 expedition, the Academy scientists expect to discover more new species. Among them will be the nudibranch (noo-de-brank), the dazzlingly colorful creatures that are the darlings of underwater photographers. Kin to snails, nudibranchs (meaning “naked gills”) or sea slugs do not have any shell for protection. Instead they employ more complex defenses—powerful toxins and jewel-bright colors to warn predators. Aside from captivating scientists with their beauty, they may have more to contribute: anti-cancer compounds which are under study in clinical trials.

The 2011 exploration found as many as 50 new species, confirming Batangas’ reputation as the nudibranch capital of the world. Gosliner, a leading researcher in nudibranchs, discovered most of them. He has spent most of his life around these brazen beauties; he found his first new species in his senior year of high school.

Jewel of the sea: One of the new species of Hypselodoris nudibranchs found in Mainit, Batangas by Dr. Gosliner. (Photo by Terrence Gosliner, California Academy of Sciences)

Today, he is the leading scientist in the evolutionary history of nudibranchs, with three decades of research, 150 scientific papers and five books under his belt. He has discovered some 700 new nudibranch species, most of them in Philippine waters. Some of them have yet to be named. 

Gosliner named his first new species after his high school science teacher. Subsequent discoveries were conferred the names of his wife, son and daughter. Monikers for his more recent finds use local terms. One “nudi” was baptized “estrellado” (Spanish for fried eggs, also used in the vernacular). “It had a white circle and a yellow in the center like sunny-side up,” Gosliner said. “And another one I will call ‘buntot’ because it has a tail.”

How does he know that he is looking at a new species? “It’s like walking into a roomful of people and there are a few newcomers. It’s the same thing with discovering a new species. Everyone else is your friend and suddenly there’s this new person,” Gosliner said. Incredibly, he has found one new species every time he dives. 

New discovery at Verde Passage Island: Otinodoris species of nudibranch found by Dr. Gosliner in 2011. (Photo by Terrence Gosliner, California Academy of Sciences)

Gosliner remembers all too well his first dive in the Philippines. It was 1992 in Batangas. He was in the water when dynamite exploded not too far away. “I thought my eardrums were blasted,” he said. “The fish around me were twitching and dying. Nothing brings home a point more than experiencing dynamite fishing.” 

That point was made loud and clear. The science was important in building understanding, but Gosliner realized that “we had to do something because the world was changing in ways that were not good.” That’s when he became involved in applying this science to conservation efforts. 

Dynamite fishing is only one of the many destructive practices that pose a threat to the marine ecosystems. The environmental damage and loss of habitat throughout the Philippines mark it as a “biodiversity hotspot,” a region that is both unusually diverse and highly threatened. Of the 25 identified hotspots around the world, the Philippines is one of the top “hottest.” 

Halting the Destruction

Verde Island Passage may be a marine wonderland under the waves, yet this sea corridor hums with engines of container ships and inter island vessels. Pump boats powered by diesel engines ferry divers and tourists to dive spots and resorts. Tankers carry crude oil to Batangas refineries. All these leave heavy footprints on the region. No systems are in place to contain major chemical or oil spills and many resorts lack solid waste management facilities.

A pair of tiny mandarin dragonets from the Philippines on display at the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences.  (Photo by Astrid M. Barros)

With coral reefs under assault by destructive human practices and climate change, the task of saving them is colossal. The challenge of bringing various stakeholders to the table is even more daunting. 

To this end, the Academy always integrates science with collaboration and outreach efforts. “The Academy seeks authentic partnerships with local communities, educational institutions, the government, NGOs and conservation groups,” said Dr. Meg Burke, director of Teacher and Youth Education at the Academy. 

Filipino institutions and scientists are the Academy’s partners in science: colleagues from the University of the Philippines, De La Salle University, the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, and the Philippines National Museum joined the 2011 expedition team. Burke also holds community meetings and workshops for teachers, to talk about how they can help students appreciate coral reefs and help protect them.

“Not everybody is able to scuba dive or snorkel; it may be hard for them to fathom what a reef is about,” said Burke. “We always show pictures and bring live organisms. People get so excited to see animals they’ve never seen before.” 

A biologist by training, Dr. Meg Burke now spends most of her time on educational outreach, helping people understand the urgent need for environmental responsibility. (Photo courtesy of California Academy of Sciences)

No matter who the audience is, Burke always talks about simple things that people can do, like not using plastic bags or Styrofoam containers.

Local communities are taking small steps. Some barangays have begun to ban plastic bags; some are conducting coastal cleanups. Grassroots efforts have established marine protected areas, even if only on a small scale. “Each barangay has its own little patch of reef offshore,” said Burke.

The challenge is to help people comprehend the long-term benefits against the short-term, Burke said. One solution may be responsible ecotourism. Though not perfect, it can be done in ways that would benefit the communities and still preserve coral reefs. “It becomes an economic incentive to protect the reefs because tourists will pay a lot to snorkel, dive and take underwater pictures,” Burke said.

One positive outcome of the cooperation between Academy researchers and local communities addressed the destruction of corals from anchors. Instead of throwing anchors to the sea bottom and breaking corals in the process, dive boats can be tied to mooring buoys, which are anchored permanently to the sea floor.

A tigertail seahorse from the Philippines, now a permanent resident at the Steinhart Aquarium. (Photo by Astrid M. Barrros)

Much-needed political action has also given conservation efforts a boost. Two days after typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, Gosliner and Burke flew to Batangas to collaborate with the provincial board on creating a coastal ecosystem development plan, providing advice and scientific data to support a law preventing mangroves from being cut. “The typhoon pointed out how resilient communities are if healthy coral reefs and mangroves can provide a buffer,” said Gosliner. 

Helping people understand about reefs is an initial step towards saving them. To that end, scientists of the Mind Museum in Manila and marine biologists from the Academy offered a Marine Science Camp in early May. Families and children learned more about coral reefs through interactive lectures and snorkeling sessions in Anilao, Batangas.

Robert Suntay, a divemaster and habitué of Batangas dive spots for 20 years, is conducting one of the workshops of the science camp. “The sooner more people have a firsthand experience and appreciation of our underwater world, the sooner we can expect to see even more improvements in the preservation of our reefs and their inhabitants,” he said. 

Purple blotches on a white background help the harlequin shrimp blend into the reef. (Photo taken at the Steinhart Aquarium by Astrid Barros)

“I'm very happy to say that from my first dives in 1994 to my latest dives in 2014, the Anilao, Batangas area, in particular, has improved hugely! I no longer hear dynamite explosions, I no longer see people pumping cyanide onto the reefs, and I have not seen fishermen catching fish inside designated marine sanctuaries,” Suntay said. “The underwater flora and fauna are so much more robust and plentiful today in comparison to when I first started diving.”

But, Suntay cautions, “There are still places where one can see lots of trash both on and beneath the waters, and reef damage due to anchors being carelessly dropped by boats carrying divers.”

Do coral reefs have a future? Gosliner is optimistic, although skeptics say that they will die within our lifetime. Global warming and other environmental problems may destroy up to 70 percent of the world’s reefs in the next 15 years.

Philippine-based divemaster Robert Suntay leads one of the Marine Science Camp workshops in Batangas. (Photo by Eric Ksau Whipps)

In 2010, one of two warmest years on record, massive coral bleaching episodes were reported throughout Southeast Asia. Corals were turning bone-white as the oceans heated up. The reefs in Verde Island Passage suffered the same fate. However, in April and May of 2011, many of the corals in the Passage had recovered while other places were still devastated. 

“An interesting thing about Verde Island Passage is that not only does it have the greatest biodiversity in the world, it also seems to be very resilient. If we protect this pocket of resilience properly, we can help replenish corals that get killed off in other areas,” Gosliner said.

The coral reefs seemed to have endured, for now. If political will, public support and scientific expertise join forces, the reefs’ chances of survival are strong. And life can go on renewing itself, under the light of a full moon. 

Astrid M. Barros

Astrid M. Barros

Astrid M. Barros has dived and snorkeled in the waters of Batangas, Cebu, Bohol and Palawan in the Philippines; as well as in Hawaii, Florida, the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos.